First to close, last to reopen. That’s the slogan ready on the tongues of venue owners around the country when describing their plight in the pandemic-ravaged year, its snappiness belying the despair.
On Jan. 28, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that live-entertainment venues in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties can now reopen, albeit with caveats, as COVID-19 restrictions were eased. Yet even after a year of bleeding cash while stage lights stayed dark, the news wasn’t greeted with the universal applause you might expect.
Thus far, only a few local music venues have signaled their interest in reopening under present conditions. In a statement on its website, the Washington Nightlife Music Association — a coalition of independent club owners — said many venues will opt to remain closed, citing safety concerns and a number of requirements, including a 25% capacity limit that “is not cost-effective for most venue operations or equitable” for ticket pricing.
“It’s just not really realistic for us, for the bands,” said Tractor Tavern owner Dan Cowan. “We can’t really make any money. Nobody’s jumping on board. … We were very surprised that venues such as ours were included in that.”
Glancing over the requirements, Cowan and other venue owners said they seemed geared toward larger theaters instead of the small-to-mid-sized clubs where local musicians typically play. Seattle Theatre Group, which operates the Neptune, Moore and Paramount theaters — their capacities ranging from about 1,000 to 2,800 — declined to say whether it was considering holding live events under the present rules.
For the smaller clubs that make most of their money on bar sales, the 25% capacity limit (up to 200 people) would make it tough to turn a profit. Under state guidelines, venues must also keep a mandatory 20-foot buffer between performers and the audience, further reducing the capacity at small clubs, while also maintaining six feet of space between fans. Unlike in restaurants where the average patron might spend $40-$50, Cowan said, music fans may spend just $10-$12 at the bar. A two-hour limit on events also could hinder bar sales.
“Even at 50% [capacity] I couldn’t socially distance more than 60 people, according to current rules,” Cowan said of the Tractor, which can normally handle around 400. “At the end of the day, we make our money squeezing people in. So does every other live-music club.”
Jazz Alley, which is uniquely positioned as a fully functioning restaurant, could not be reached for comment about whether it’s reopening soon. After making considerable COVID-era upgrades to its space, the downtown jazz pillar had hoped to reopen last summer when indoor dining returned, only to be rebuffed by a clarification from the state that live entertainment was still prohibited at that time.
Steven Severin, co-owner of Neumos and Barboza, said it’s “still going to be a bit” before his Capitol Hill venues reopen. While the eased restrictions indicate we’re “heading in the right direction,” he said, he’s spoken with a few other owners who also plan to stay shuttered. “It just doesn’t financially make sense nor do I really believe scientifically it makes sense,” Severin wrote in an email, noting everyone’s situation is different.
Last summer, Clock-Out Lounge co-owner Jodi Ecklund was hopeful that one day she’d be able to at least resume its popular comedy night or try some seated dinner shows. But the veteran booker has no plans to reopen, even for bar service, under the present rules.
“I just find it problematic, honestly,” Ecklund said. “With this new (coronavirus) variant that’s more transmissible, the staff safety is of my utmost concern and the fact that we’re not in line to get vaccinated — it just doesn’t make any sense to me on multiple levels.”
The Beacon Hill club, which also houses Breezy Town Pizza, was previously open for dine-in food and drink when live music was still banned. Ensuring patrons wore masks when going to the bar or preventing them from chatting up other nearby parties was challenging once a few drinks lowered inhibitions, she said. Ecklund also fears a potential “yo-yo effect,” as the guidelines will be reevaluated every two weeks. Should cases surge forcing the Clock-Out to close up again, she could be out the cost of tapped kegs or risk booking and promoting shows just to have them axed.
“That’s just like throwing my money in a wishing well,” she said.
Still, some are at least testing the waters. Last weekend, Green Lake country bar the Little Red Hen was scheduled to host two shows with Country Dave Harmonson. The owner could not be reached for comment. South Lake Union’s Lo-Fi Performance Gallery has a DJ night slated for Feb. 12.
And on Feb. 13, former Queensryche frontman Geoff Tate is slated to play an acoustic set at the Historic Everett Theatre. While the 200 tickets quickly sold out, theater manager Curt Shriner said no other shows are planned this month, although if all goes well he may add some March dates.
“I know that a lot of people have been chomping at the bit,” Shriner said. “We’ve probably had calls every day for a year asking us when are we gonna reopen. So, people are anxious to get back.”
For the show, which Tate’s team initiated, the standing room area between the stage and seats will be closed and fans will be staggered in every other row. At least three seats (or six feet) will remain open between groups, and Shriner expects to have six of the nonprofit theater’s volunteer staff working the night of the show. “I know we’re going to follow all the guidelines and requirements,” he said. “I’m hoping that — and only time will [tell] by the concert — that the people will. If we can’t make sure that the people follow the guidelines, then we just won’t do it.”
Despite the fast sellout, Shriner isn’t expecting the show to be a huge moneymaker for the theater that can normally hold around 980 people. “Hopefully soon we’ll be able to make up for lost time and revenue,” Shriner said, “but right now just getting people back into the seats, back out to a live event is more important than that.”
It remains to be seen how many venues will try throwing live events in the short term, but some Seattle club owners say they’re still eyeing fall as a possible reopening date. In the meantime, Cowan’s trying to limit his stress levels amid the unprecedented circumstances his 26-year-old Ballard club is facing. He may try opening a small cafe in the venue’s front room next month to generate some revenue.
“I’m just trying to ride through this and not worry too much. Figure we’ll get back on our horse sooner than later,” he said, catching himself. “Well, later than sooner.”